Richard Reddie explores the Prime Minister’s recent declaration that Britain is a Christian country, and finds that, whilst the importance of Christianity is declining in the indigenous population, it is thriving in the Black community
It used to be said that British politicians steer clear of talking about their faith – let’s not forget Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell, who famously suggested that New Labour did not “do God”. For Campbell and his ilk, we should leave “God” to the Americans, who would never conceive of electing a President who failed to profess a faith in Christ.
This, however, changed recently, when Prime Minister David Cameron spoke about his faith, and then suggested that Britain should be “more confident about [its] status as a Christian country”, and that Christians “make a difference to people’s lives, and should be more evangelical about it”. No sooner had Cameron made these comments than his detractors rounded on him. For some, he was being opportunistic – trying to shore up the Tory vote before the Local and European elections – this was irrespective of the fact that he made these comments during his Easter message. While, for the 50-odd British public figures who wrote to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, his views “risk[ed] causing alienation in [British] society”.
This group of largely secular humanists also argued that Britain was no longer a Christian country, but “a multi-faith society and a no-faith society”. These disparagers pointed to a recent YouGov poll, which found “65% of people questioned described themselves as ‘not religious’, while 29% said they were”. Moreover, they argued that the Office for National Statistics’ 2011 Census found a drop of four million in the number of people who said they were Christians in England and Wales – down from 2001 – with 59% of residents describing themselves as Christian.
What has been fascinating about the Cameron-inspired discussion is the way Black Christian voices have been absent from it. While Christianity may be on the decline in some White or indigenous communities, it is in rude health in the Black community, where 80% would profess a faith in Christ – clearly bucking the national trend. Moreover, the growing, ‘aggressive’ secular humanist movement appears to have by-passed Black folks, who remain “curiously religious”. It was noteworthy that there was not one Black person among the 50-odd signatories to the aforementioned Daily Telegraph letter. That is why it was somewhat galling that no Black Christian voices could be found to respond to the accusations that the promotion of Christianity risked alienating (minorities) in Britain – something which implied that all minorities belonged to non-Christian faiths. Who would have been better than a Christian from a Black or minority ethnic community to respond to such a blinkered suggestion? Yet, we only heard from the usual suspects, many of whom had little new to add to this very important subject.
It can be argued that Black Christians have become the standard–bearers of the Christian faith in the UK; they are often the most visible and vocal when it comes to “standing up for Jesus” in our increasingly secular society. Anyone who follows the news in this country could not fail to notice the numbers who end up at employment tribunals or in court rooms over some case involving their right to openly uphold their faith in a public sphere. However, such religious zeal on issues, such as civil partnerships/gay marriage and religious discrimination, has led to the accusation that Black Christians are more intolerant and less nuanced than their White counterparts, and are being used as ‘lightning rods’ on those controversial issues other Christians prefer to avoid.
So, while Black believers appear to be the public face of Christianity on contentious matters, their voices are invariably ignored on more conventional ones, such as the one instigated by the Prime Minister. This invariably leads to a misguided understanding of the diversity associated with the Christian faith in the UK, which is typified by statements like those of the Muslim imam and broadcaster, Ajmal Masroor, who found “the state of Christianity in the inner city (London) deeply distressing”. He went on to ask: “Why is Christianity becoming obsolete so quickly in the vibrant east of the city?”
Akin to those aggressive atheists, the imam’s perception of the declining influence/size of the Church is clearly framed by the BBC sitcoms, The Vicar of Dibley and Rev, rather than the dynamic, vibrant Black congregations that are at the heart of their communities in many inner cities. These churches are hubs in their communities, and the locales from which a plethora of social programmes and community-based leadership emanate. Indeed, the former Anglican Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, when commenting on Islam’s impact on British cities, suggested that: “If it had not been for the Black Majority Churches and the recent arrival of people from central and Eastern Europe, the Christian cause in many of our cities would have looked a lost one.” As evangelical Christians are keen to point out, Christ is not dead in this country. He is alive and well, especially in Black communities; we just need to give them the opportunity to speak about this on a range of issues.
Richard Reddie is a writer and religious commentator. His latest book explores the history of the New Testament Assembly in the UK.